Breaking into product management from customer support

Andy Yeo on August 5th 2020

Let’s say you're looking to break into product management but your experience to date has been limited to support or other customer-facing roles. What's the best way to become a product manager?

I can't promise you that the path isn't challenging, but there are some fundamental steps that worked for me that I'm sure will make your transition much easier.

Make sure your motivations are clear

Success in any career transition relies more on your motivations and less on your experience. There are days as a PM where you feel absolutely invigorated by what you're shipping to customers. But I'd be lying if I didn't mention the days where it also feels thankless and stressful. That's why it's important to ask yourself honestly, "Why do I want to move from customer support into product management?" and align this with what fulfills you in a job.

For me, I had led a career traversing various customer-facing roles — from sales -> customer success -> sales engineering -> support engineering. Each time I made a move, I was motivated by my passion for solving customer problems.

When I decided to transition into product management, this passion was combined with a desire to drive business growth at a strategic level by influencing what and how products were launched. These motivations haven’t changed, so no matter how nerve-racking my week gets, I have no regrets.

Focus on your transferable skills

Customer support reps often perceive themselves in a second-class role. They see themselves as someone who spends their days answering ticket after ticket, with no end in sight. If you feel this way, don't.

Some of the best product managers I know come from a customer support background. The role trains you to be empathetic with the customer, exposes you to the most relevant customer problems and teaches you to juggle many tasks at once with the same level of quality.

These are all attributes that make a brilliant product manager.

In fact, I specifically moved into the support role at Segment after reading this blog post so that I could gain the customer exposure necessary to make that transition smooth.

If you’re looking to make the jump into product management, focus on the portable skills you’ve developed as a customer support rep. There could be few candidates that have your depth of customer empathy.

Build relationships with the product team

Never take for granted how much relationships help in your career. This is especially true if there isn't a formal internal transfer program available in your company.

Get to know the whole product team, understand what they do, how they do it, and potentially how they may have made their own transition happen.

When I first arrived at Segment, I arranged coffee chats with every PM on the team, the colleagues who I'd one day be on the same team with. They shared their journeys, their advice, and more importantly, anecdotes about their job that helped to confirm my original motivation.

In particular, get to know the product leader. Depending on the size of your company and its management style, this would likely be the VP or Director of Product. Share your aspirations with them and make them your executive sponsor so they can help steer you in the right direction, offer advice, and ensure you’re top of mind when the next opportunity arises.

I built a solid relationship with our Director of Product when I first joined Segment and attribute a lot of my own transition success to the guidance he shared with me and the doors he opened. While he has since moved on, I still consider him both a friend and mentor.

One word of caution. I've spoken to a number of customer support reps who shy away from sharing their aspirations of becoming a PM in their company for fear of failure or judgment from their team. As long as you're performing in your existing role in support, your transparency makes you top of mind to be considered when PM roles do open up.

Don’t lose focus while trying to transition

While no one expects you to stay in one role or team forever, and great managers will actively support you in your career development, the caveat here is that you must excel in the existing job that you were hired to do.

In support, this typically means consistently answering a large volume of tickets at a high quality and receiving positive NPS scores from your customers. This gives you repeated opportunities to learn how to investigate the true pain points for customers and also the various ways that these issues can or cannot be resolved with the existing product functionality. This provides a holistic perspective on what and how you build a product once you become a PM.

Remember that the manager of your current team is just as involved in any potential transfer process as your future manager will be. Your performance in your support role helps translate into a recommendation for the transition. In my case, my manager was incredibly supportive of me exploring potential opportunities, but it helped that she trusted that I could deliver results.

Learn by doing

The best way to demonstrate your interest and to hone in on the required skills of a PM is to take on suitable projects. While this might seem overwhelming on top of your existing responsibilities, juggling multiple workstreams in itself is great practice for becoming a PM.

For most organizations, there's never enough people to do everything that needs to be done so the challenge isn't about landing a side project, but about choosing the right project to work on. Your evaluation should first be based on the level of impact on the business and then how well it allows you to demonstrate and practice core PM skillsets.

The gaps or areas to focus on will differ for each person but I worked with our Director of Product (remember how important this relationship is?) to whittle down the projects which allowed me to build empathy and communication, practice product execution, learn how to effectively distill data to make decisions, and formulate an effective way to manage multiple workstreams.

Over the course of the year, I completed 3-4 projects which touched on all of these skills and more. I conducted research interviews with both internal and external customers, analyzed data sets to inform the recommendations and proposals that I presented to our leadership team, wrote out mini product requirement documents, and worked with engineers and designers to implement them.

Each project you complete brings you closer to the finish line and before you know it, you're being considered as your company's next product manager. The projects you’ve shipped will set you apart as a driven and motivated individual, and the skills and knowledge you've gained make you an irrefutable choice.

When an opportunity came up at Segment, I had graduated from working on side projects to informally being embedded on the Platform team where I had first shadowed the PM and taken on smaller parts of the roadmap to execute upon.

Thanks to this, I was offered a position on the same Platform team as a product manager creating products that allow our customers and partners to build their own integrations on Segment.

Parting words

Though I've moved on from the support engineering role, I'm still heavily involved through regular meetings with the team and jumping into our support ticket system to make sure I have all the latest on-the-ground customer insights.

Transitioning from support made being ‘customer-obsessed’ second nature to the product decisions that I make now. Looking back, while the process was tough, it was also rewarding and set me up with the necessary foundations to succeed.

If you’re looking to make a similar move, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Understand why you want to become a PM

  2. Believe in your ability to go from support to product

  3. Build deep relationships to help you along the way

  4. Outperform in your current role

  5. Show that you can do it

If you're starting your own journey of transitioning into product and you're curious to hear more, don't hesitate to reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Or if you’re curious about a career at Segment, check out our open positions! We’re always looking for more driven, collaborative people to join the team.

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